Sunday, 24 August 2014

Contamine-Mazeaud (AD+, 350m), Mont Blanc du Tacul

Contamine-Mazeaud was in really good condition. The extended period of poor weather through the majority of summer had brought a lot of snow to the high peaks but fortunately things had settled down prior to our trip. Now there there was an unusually large amount of snow for late August but an abundance of beautiful firm neve in wait. What's more the temperatures were holding well below freezing for the next few days. It meant harsh conditions for high rock routes but excellent conditions on moderately steep snow slopes.

The Tacul triangle in excellent condition

We initially moved together with 60m of rope trailing between us. Anna at the front crossed the bergschrund with ease and then continued without runners for maybe another 60 metres before the fear-o-metre tripped into the red. Herewith the snow was becoming more icy but inadequately so for ice screws so we descended down and left to some in-situ belay nearby tat.

Anna leading the initial snow slope

With one of us now secured to the mountain I took the lead with an assortment metal-wear clipped to my harness that would prove largely redundant during the climb. The climbing was steady but hard enough to warrant the belays. Every axe placement felt great although care was needed where a little more icy. The initial climbing on the second pitch from the initial belay was maybe the crux. It was steeper than the previous pitch but still easier than the sections on Chèré Couloir. The snow slopes funnelled gently into a narrower channel of steeper snow before the route opened out into much broader snowfield above, interspersed with isolated blocks of granite. From here the climbing became a little easier. I lead each pitch with little care for runners until maybe 50 metres had passed. Then came the challenge of finding some tat or a crack hidden beneath the snow where I could slot a cam. Sometimes we would need to move together a little distance but generally a belay appeared just when needed. Another British pair were matching us pitch-for-pitch so the chore of finding the next belay was also split depending on started up first.

Towards the top of the snowfield

Following the route to the top of the triangle looked a little discontinuous and contrived so we swung right towards the top of Chèré Couloir. After some moderate difficulties finding the couloir, followed by a stuck abseil rope (fortunately easy to retrieve), we were soon linking the abseils with ease. I knew from previously descending this way that it paid dividends to ignore many of the premature abseil points and aim for a full 60m each time. My previous descent this way it had been with a single rope and so had required a tedious ten abseils. Half ropes definitely hastened the progress. The crux pitches of Chèré Couloir were looking very easy compared to when I climbed it a few years previous with shallower channels of stepped-out ice markedly reducing their steepness.

Descending Chèré Couloir

Anna managed to find the bottom of the bergschrund toward the end of the final rappel. Then back to the Cosmiques Hut. Yes, the Cosmiques Hut! After many trips camping on the col below the hut I thought it was time I treated myself.

In the bergschrund

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Walk on the Wild Side (n6-), Skurvefjell

The guidebook described the Eastern part of Skurvefjell as 'løs' (loose) with 'dårlig sikkerhet' (poor protection). Still, this didn't seem to perturb us. Particularly given that our chosen route merited four stars in the local guidebook. It was presumably loose and a little bit dangerous in a 'fun' sort of way, like Wrecker's Slab for example... At nearly 300m height, the cliff certainly looked impressive and too good to resist.

The very pleasant walk-in
The first pitch gave an indication of what might follow. Compact rock with little in the way of natural protection. My first runner was maybe 12m above the ground. Where cracks existed they were nearly always associated with unstable rock. Already the climbing was feeling serious but after a couple more runners in succession I begun to feel happier. The first pitch weaved up and right and then back left so naturally I reduced the left rope runners as I approached the switchback. The first real alarm bell rang when I spotted a 30cm rock perched delicately over the pitch at half height from my belay. It hadn't affected me on lead but for Anna on second there was a chance that my left hand rope, which dropped more directly down to her to avoid rope drag, could ping the rock and dislodge it as she climbed from left to right beneath it. It was easy to overcome this risk by keeping the left rope slack. Fortunately it was visible from the belay but a warning of what was to follow...

Skurvefjell Vest (left) & Skurvefjell Øst (right)
An awkward, unproctectable short chimney followed... again feeling serious, particularly with so much rock still above us. The chimney also felt worrying hard for the grade, which didn't bode well for the crux in the upper half of the route. The climbing line traversed back right to follow a faint groove lace-able with good gear. Maybe nothing to fear after all...

That was until the third pitch when the climbing went from fairly solid but difficult to protect to loose and difficult to protect. Fortunately the climbing was easier but under the given conditions it didn't particularly feel that way. I mounted some rocky steps interspersed by grassy ledges, passing a stack of loose boulders to my right. Continuing up a grassy ramp with little sign of protection the main challenge proved was avoid slipping on the foliage beneath my ill-suited rock shoes. After climbing close to 60m with no adequate gear it was time to find a belay. Of course there wasn't one... Much hunting around followed before I settled for a couple of placements around a stack of blocks that optimistically looked as though they would stay put in the event of high loading.

More of the same for Anna and another 'optimistic' belay. The problem now was that the distinct crux pitch was to follow and I needed a stronger belay to heighten the head space. Plus it looked as though we needed to be further right beneath a faint groove from where the climbing from continue right. Hopefully in that direction there would be a better belay and less rope drag to follow. Delicately I traversed across in absence of runners, throwing loose rocks down the route as I went. This seemed preferable to potentially dislodging them whilst climbing and maybe losing balance. Fortunately the route weaved around enough to avoid the risk of rocks hitting the belays and needless to say there were no other climbers in the vicinity to concern ourselves with. After some patient searching I found an adequate belay of sorts and more ideally positioned for the climbing to follow.

The route
The crux pitch climbed the short groove and then traversed right beneath a shallow roof to a point where it could be breached. I found a strong nut placement in the initial groove, which helped with reassurance. Then some adequate cam placements at the back of the roof. I reached a ledge beneath where the roof needed to be breached and spent the next ten minutes fiddling with gear and stripping the loose rock from the cliff. With three runners in close proximity and the cliff tidied-up as best possible it was time to try to climb the thing. Cautiously I climbed the first few moves, testing each hold as I went but quickly got tired using this slow method and returned to the ledge. Climbing on loose rock was fine whilst the terrain was slightly slabby but now much more disconcerting with it becoming steeper. There was the need to climb quickly but this conflicted with the requirement to test every hold before committing. Second attempt I got higher but found only blank rock above me and no accommodation for runners. Again I backed-off to the ledge.

I followed the ledge further right to where the roof ended and a much larger roof commenced higher up. There looked a possible way through the roofs by climbing a slab beneath the large roof and then traversing back left to above the small roof. A large flake lay balanced at the top of the slab - too large to voluntarily displace. With a slightly dubious nut placed, I set about checking the rock to my left, where I would traverse in towards. It seemed largely stable but also fairly blank for the feet and not much to pull myself across with. At full reach I found a decent side-pull and mounted the exposed wall above the roof. tiptoeing across the small edges I found larger hand holds waiting and quickly the climbing became easier. The switchback through the roof had created too much rope drag but a good belay was at least at hand thanks to a solid over-head blue hex placement. Time to relax a little and take in the wonderful view of the Hemsedal valley below.

The remainder of the pitch was easy, skirting rightwards across slabby ground before climbing a short corner. There was little in the way of runners but at least a sound belay was waiting for me with a couple of cams at foot level.
Easier climbing on the upper pitches
Close to the top
Three pitches of easy climbing then followed, with the final two pitches weaving through a steeper final wall to follow weaknesses and avoid some seepage. It was 7pm by the time we reached the top. Looseness and lack of protection had significantly contributed to some slow climbing and overall the route probably deserves UK E1,5a due to both these factors. I would suggest the route warrants no starts rather than the full set awarded by the guidebook but that said, it did hold a certain character... at least for somebody prepared to sacrifice classic climbing for esoterica. It was certainly 'epic' and 'memorable', which is more than can be said for a lot of routes and no doubt it will stay in my mind after other so-called classic climbs have been forgotten. The scenery was also spectacular from our high vantage point. All things considered though, I won't be repeating it. But for anybody looking to attempt the route there has maybe not been a better time for a while... After personally stripping so many loose rocks from the route is is now VERY LOOSE as opposed to VERY VERY LOOSE!
Skurkefjell Øst

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Agent Orange, Hægefjell

It began to rain as we were gearing up at the bottom of the route. It fell gently so it made sense to start climbing before the slabbed rock begun to lose friction. Hopefully it would pass, otherwise we we be abseiling from the first belay. Quickly I padded up the rock, clipping the spaced bolts that were painted orange in relation to the route's name Agent Orange. My foot slipped on some smooth quartz embedded in the rock, I stammered but stayed put. The forecast had looked unstable so choosing an easier route with bolt belays looked a safe bet in light of a possible quick escape. The forecast also looked to get worse as the day progressed so something uncomplicated made sense.

Fortunately the rain passed and any thoughts of retreat quickly passed with it. More slab padding, bolt clipping antics followed on the second pitch before my trad rack finally needed to be utilised on the third pitch.

The third pitch proved to be a beautiful one, following a curving corner crack with some lovely positive lay-backing moves, and backed-up by positive cam placements. A couple of bolts protected a short unprotectable off-width section before the corner broke left below a shallow roof. I traversed beneath this, placing some solid cams on long runners until the roof ended and the corner continued up the slabs again. Our respective guidebooks graded it 5- and 5+ and it felt somewhere in the middle.

Climbing the initial corner on the third pitch
Photo by Anna Kennedy
Ann at the top of the third pitch
Steady climbing followed for the remaining pitches with a sequence of easy shallow corners that disrupted the surrounding smooth faces. The features thinned out for the final couple of pitches and the bolts reappeared to supplement the lack of natural protection.

Top of the fifth pitch
Start of the sixth pitch
One of the problems with the bolts being orange was that sometimes they were a little hard to spot when the granite was a similar hue. Often the paint was faded and partially worn away, which helped camourflage their presence. Sometimes I would scan the rock for the next bolt only to find one under my nose. The last pitch was graded 5- with (four) bolts in-situ so Anna started up the pitch without the trad rack in order to save time and weight, expecting the climbing to be easy and bolts where needed. But from a matter of metres below the top of the route she ab'ed back down to me, unsure where the final bolt lay and too far above the last bolt to commit to the final moves up a short wall. I failed to spot the bolt as well but my head was fortunately in better shape to commit to the final moves. Only during the abseil descent did we spot the bolt in the middle of the short wall.

The bolt belays allowed a swift descent to the base of the route. After yesterday's adventure on Mota Sola, Orange Orange felt very steady apart from some careful climbing on the third pitch. It definately fell into the catagory of 'fun' though and was the perfect route for a quick getaway before the rain storms arrived.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Mot Sola (n6-), Hægefjell

An army of angry midges were waiting for us to open our tent doors in the morning. Not quite as violent as their Scottish counterparts but clearly the contents of my vascular system in hot demand. Breakfast and morning preparation involved the futile, inefficient act of pacing around in no particular direction so as to avoid the cloud of midges.

We were camped beneath Hægefjell, a broad expanse of granite that consisted of smoother slabs on the right side but more featured, steeper climbing on the left side. Many of the routes on the left side were hard but the obvious weakness drew my eye. The route called Mot Sola followed a sequence of cracks and corners up the face and screamed out to be climbed. I knew the route was often wet, which made the current dry conditions an excellent time to attempt it.

Hægefjell - Mot Sola is just left of centre

We opted for the Original Start, which climbed two pitches of expansive, smooth slabs in order the reach a main corner system, where most people traversed in to commence the climbing. We weren't entirely sure of the line up the slabs but found a sequence of shallow grooves that allowed for some spaced protected climbing through largely compact rock. The supposed bolt belay no where to be seen but a large boulder hidden behind a patch of shrubs was just as welcome. Certainly the oldest bolt that I have ever seen presented near the start of the second pitch. The slabs became more rippled, which made for easier climbing. No need for any short linking pitch as described in the Rockfax guide.

Anna climbing the second pitch of the Original Start towards the main corner system
Retro bolt-clipping
The excitement really started once into the corner system on the third pitch. This was anything between n5 and 6- depending on which guidebook we referenced (maybe n5+). Some interesting layback moves above good gear brought me to large ledge with a pair of belay bolts out of reach above my head. I needed to lay-back a crack to the right in order to clip the bolts. I can only assume there was a layer of snow at the belay when bolts were added.

Pitch three
3m high belay bolts
The climbing continued up another corner, which further improved in quality. Anna led what was maybe the most perfect pitch of the climb, both in terms of aesthetics and quality of climbing. First lay-backing and bridging a lower corner crack before traversing left via a balancy move to a higher crack running parallel. Sustained climbing with plenty of gear and an awkward hanging belay at two thirds the height in the corner. The remainder of the corner continued in the same vein before opening out into undulating ground in the upper half of the pitch.

Great climbing on pitch 4
Anna making the tricky move from the right to left crack
View back to Anna's hanging belay from the fourth pitch
The subsequent crux pitch had a stiff start... a jamming crack that needed to be gained above a small roof. Maybe gaining it would have been easy were my hand jamming technique half up to scratch (but then finger locks are never going to be my forte). Having failed miserably with my jamming at first attempt I reverted to tried and tested lay-backing off a low block beneath the roof on the right that had indentations on either side for my finger tips. Desperately I threw my legs high to a ledge to the left of the roof and then scrapped to gain the crack above the overhang. Not pretty but I just about effective. Easier, well-protected climbing followed above before cautiously breaking right across a wet slab to the belay.

Above the difficulties on the crux fifth pitch
Traverse at the top of pitch five
The next pitch was a surprise to the system. It was supposed to be n5 but involved a bouldery step directly above the belay onto a slab. The only protection being the belay bolts until a rusty peg could reached beyond the difficulties a short distance above. Mounting the step was relatively easy but pinning the feet to the steep lip of the slab was another matter. Twice Anna slipped off, grazing her shins on the edge of the slab on her second attempt and landing like a plank below my belay. After much pondering and experiementation with alternative lines she concluded there were no better options. Third attempt she managed to cling on enough to move up and clip the peg. I faired no better. Two failed attempts, including matching grazes down my shins on second attempt. The aid of a side pull to my right helped me stay put on the third attempt.

Traversing right through seapage on the sixth pitch
The final pitch also proved to be no push-over with some awkward moves above poor gear followed by some stiff lay-backing up an offwidth crack. Then easier climbing to the top of the route, rounding off what must be one of the best multi-pitch trad rock routes that I have climbed anywhere. The initial two slab pitches were nothing special but what followed was everything that I look for in a climb. A strong line, with sustained, continued interest, in a pristine environment. Even the descent through the forest back to the camp site was very pleasant.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Fossegrimen (UIAA VI-), Setesdal

Plan A had been to visit Romsdal for the week but there was too much rain forecast in the North. Particularly along the coast. Staying in Southern Norway looked to be the safer option if we wanted some mileage. The new plan would be first Setesdal and then Rogaland, which would hopefully offer some contrasting variety. The former would provide some long multipitch slab climbs and when we were bored of slabs there would be some steeper single pitch climbing waiting for us in Rogaland. After my brief ice climbing trip to Setesdal in February I was curious to return in the summer months.

Anna was still finding her feet on long, more committing, multi-pitch routes so a bolted friction slab looked a good medium with which to progress, as no doubt we would climb it comparatively quickly. There was the minor issue of spaced bolts (one pitch had three bolts in 60m for example) but I anticipated there would be protection where needed. Plus we were feeling tuned to the rock after some single pitch climbing at nearby Løefjell the previous day.

A route called Fossegrimen, near the village of Bø, looked a fine objective. Thirteen pitches of climbing stretching over 770m. For the large part the climbing was easy. Often there was little in the way of holds but sufficient friction for the feet without too much precision. Despite the spaced bolting there were enough to keep us on the right track and protect the bits that really mattered. Most of the bolted routes in the region were put up by Germans and in true German efficiency nearly every pitch was the full length of our 60m ropes. A couple of grade V steps offered some minor resistance and the crux moves, undercutting a horizontal lip around a corner, needed particular care, as did the featureless slab above. The top pitches were some of the easiest 'climbing' that I have done. It is possible to run up grade UIAA I friction slabs...

The route
We completed the route by 1pm in time for lunch at the top. The climb had a 'big day out' feel, on clean rock, and some fine vistas of the valley, which made it arguably the highlight of the trip. The only way down was by abseil so attention was needed to the ends of the ropes given the 60m belay spacings. Trying to throw the rope more than about 20m down the slabs was impossible due to the horizontal displacement with each pitch but with little shrubbery for the ropes to catch on the descent was an easy and speedy affair. Our hands were black from the rope by the time we reached the base of the climb. Next visit we need to try one of the similar length trad lines. There is also a route with a canoe approach that I have my eye on...

Pitch 2 (UIAA IV+)
Pitch 4 (UIAA V)
Edgeing around the undercut corner on pitch 9 (UIAA VI-)
The thin slab beyond the corner (UIAA VI-)
The final pitch (UIAA I)
Top of the route
Bottom of the route

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Overraskelsen - Direkte variant (n5+), Skogshorn

We referred to the route description:

"Follow <something> towards the right up to <something>. Thereafter little <something>, until left around the corner and up a short crack / <something>. Belay on the top of this."

...We were experiencing a few navigational problems due to language difficulties with our guidebook. Usually in such situations I would just look at the pictures except these were equally baffling. The sketch of the route showed a dotted line passing through an assortment of chimneys and cracks but nothing was really to scale or with any points of reference. If we were following a line of bolts then this may have been fine but we were on a trad line. The initial pitch was not installing great confidence in my route-finding abilities in particular. It climbed a relatively obvious broad corner system but was very loose and vegetated. The trick being not to fall off with a piece rock still in your hand. Not what you would expect from a four star classic.

Skogshorn, in Hemsedal, looked a great proposition in the guidebook with multi-pitch trad routes up to 400m high on prominent buttresses and ridges. What's more the mountain looked like a large scale Clogwyn Du'r Arddu, only it was South facing. The direct variation of Overraskelsen, which wound it's way up one of the central buttresses looked the obvious choice route.

For the first handful of pitches we faffed for too long trying to decide which way go. We too often made belays two thirds of the way up pitches in order to discuss route finding. The hours passed by, clouds developed, the winds picked up, and by the sixth pitch it began to rain. We were now high on the mountain with still three pitches to go - including the crux seventh pitch. Fortunately the rock quality had improved markedly since the first pitch and the climb was developing into something worthy of classic status. Urgently I climbed a beautifully positioned steep slab pillar, pulling on prominent edges and not worrying about gear too much. Better to climb dry rock with few runners than wet rock with many runners I thought. The climbing was steady enough and for now the light rain was failing to gain momentum.

Easy third pitch
Climbing towards the leaning slab (left centre)
Photo by Anna Kennedy
Then the crux slanting crack on the seventh pitch - fortunately steep enough to shelter from the rain and short enough to be over in a jiffy. Still the rain fell... one pitch to go. This involved a downward traverse before gaining an open slabby corner to the top. Traverses... slabs... all the things I like to avoid in the wet. I needed to slow down and protect the traverse, although this was no easy task. Seepage spilled down the rocks but above the traverse there was plenty of gear to ensure I would not slip far. Some recent evenings spent unintentionally climbing in the rain in and around Oslo had prepared me well for these conditions. Anna joined me at the top. 400m of climbing were now below us. No time to linger. Besides I was too cold to linger, what with foolishly being under-dressed in just a t-shirt and shorts (warm weather had been promised throughout the day).

Final pitch - After the traverse
Photo by Anna Kennedy
We bore East over the loose scree that littered the summit plateau. Anna at this point concluded that epics always happened to her whenever she went in the mountains, after which the weather evidently took pity and changed for the better. Things actually became rather pleasant and we were able to relax and enjoy the wonderful summit views of the surrounding lakes. This was after all our first big rock route since arriving in Norway.

View from the summit
We swung South where the guidebook vaguely indicated a descent off the summit plateau was possible. We slowly descended between cliffs eventually to follow a broad, loose gully that needed care to avoid a tumble. Unstable rocks littered the slopes, needing little encouragement to dislodge themselves. Maybe 150m from the bottom we made a short abseil to span some particularly loose ground. Anna went first. She was barely 10m below when I lifted my bag ready for my turn only to watch a dinner plate-size rock beneath it dislodge and tumble South. "Rock, rock, rock!!" I shouted in a panic. But there was no time... Anna did a little jig on the rope to try and avoid it but she had a matter of metres to adjust. It crashed into her right knee and then continued to the bottom of the gully. Anna paused. "Why do I feel that should hurt more than is does" she grimaced. Amazingly she appeared largely unhurt. I couldn't help think thinking that maybe there would be no climbing tomorrow once the swelling kicked in.

We could see the gully dropping away at the bottom of the cliffs and so prepared ourselves for another abseil. Anna spotted some tat in some rocks and then to our amazement we spotted a couple of abseil bolts. After two hours of patiently descending loose ground with little opportunity for rappels we couldn't contain our excitement at this 'gift'. A single abseil and we were back on the broad slopes beneath the cliffs. There was still some more scree bashing to be done but we were now below the difficulties and it was just a matter of time before we were back at the car.

Never so happy to see an abseil bolt!
It was 9pm by the time I started the engine. Our wild camping spot a few miles away was a logging area was infested with mosquitoes so late evening cooking over a stove didn't appeal. In desperation we knocked on the locked front door of a Chinese restaurant in Ullsåk in the hope that they would serve us. We were in luck. And what's more the premises was licenced.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Observatory Ridge (V,4), Ben Nevis

It was 2am by the time I arrived at the North Face car park on Friday night. Another epic drive from London. Firstly traffic hold-ups on the M6 North of Birmingham, then snow on the road North of Crianlarich. Tent pitched and alarm set for 5.30am. It snowed for much of the night.

Three hours after arrival. Time to pack up and go climbing
The coires were holding a lot of fresh snow above the CIC hut so breaking a trail halfway to the summit did not appeal. That said I was aware that the recent warm weather would likely have thawed the lower buttresses so a compromise was needed. We headed for Observatory Gully with a vague plan to climb the first route that looked in condition.

I had anticipated Observatory Buttress to be the right sort of altitude to withstand the recent thaw but this was just a vague hunch. I was more concerned about the presence of large cornices above the routes but visibility was too poor to confirm their whereabouts. The cliffs were buried in fresh snow. Wading halfway up Observatory Gully for a closer look with no clue about the route exits seemed silly business. Observatory Ridge was right on our doorstep and inviting us closer. No cornices to worry about and no wading to reach it. Another team was already on the route but time lost queuing seemed a lot more attractive than time lost battled up deep unstable snow to something higher.

Observatory Ridge conditions were tough and easily warranted tech 5. There was surprisingly little névé on the lower pitches. Evidently the thaw had been aggressive during the week. What ice remained was in very poor condition. Thin ice cascaded over the rocks but the slightest tap would lead to its immediate collapse. Even the turf was only partially frozen, which made climbing the initial corner on pitch three particularly hard work. Powder snow covered everything, which made progress slow and gear placements hard to find. Plenty of time to contemplate how sleep deprived I was feeling at each belay.

Start of the second pitch
Third pitch in tough condition
Snow fell in squally showers throughout the day often reducing visibility to close proximity. During its respites there didn't look to be much in the way of conditions on the surrounding cliffs. At least four teams had bailed off the Minus Three Buttress area. Observatory Gully was void of activity. Only the distant shouts from Tower Ridge indicated other climbers in the area. The Orion Face and Observatory Buttress areas looked thin on ice but with so much fresh snow it was difficult to be 100%. The fragile ice on Observatory Ridge didn't suggest much to be excited about elsewhere.

Fourth pitch. Climber up there... somewhere
By the time we were bashing up the final snow slopes of Zero Gully it was twilight. Finally some bomber névé with the difficulties long below us. It was 7.20pm by the time I hauled myself over the top of the route exhausted. Sanity restored though. Finally a decent route climbed this winter, and in very challenging conditions.

Easy upper slopes
By the time we had descended the tourist path and skirted the bog back to the North Side it was 11pm. An eleven hour drive, followed by three hours sleep, followed by sixteen hours on the hill... The maths didn't really add up. Something that did add up was that there would be no climbing tomorrow. The only thing planned was a lie-in.